There are about 2,200,000 hectares of cork forest worldwide; 32.4% in Portugal, and 22.2% in Spain. Annual production is about 300,000 tons; 61.3% from Portugal, 29.5% from Spain, 5.5% Italy.
Once the trees are about 25 years old the cork is traditionally stripped from the trunks every nine years, with the first two harvests generally producing lower quality cork. The trees live for about 200 years.
The cork industry is generally regarded as environmentally friendly. The sustainability of production and the easy recycling of cork products and by-products are two of its most distinctive aspects. Cork Oak forests also prevent desertification and are a particular habitat in the Iberian Peninsula and the refuge of various endangered species.
As late as the mid-17th century, French vintners did not use cork stoppers, using oil-soaked rags stuffed into the necks of bottles instead.
Wine corks can be made of either a single piece of cork, or composed of particles, as in champagne corks; corks made of granular particles are called "technical corks".
Natural cork closures are used for about 80% of the 20 billion bottles of wine produced each year. After a decline in use as wine-stoppers due to the increase in the use of cheaper synthetic alternatives, cork wine-stoppers are making a comeback and currently represent approximately 60% of wine-stoppers today.
Because of the cellular structure of cork, it is easily compressed upon insertion into a bottle and will expand to form a tight seal. The interior diameter of the neck of glass bottles tends to be inconsistent, making this ability to seal through variable contraction and expansion an important attribute. However, unavoidable natural flaws, channels, and cracks in the bark make the cork itself highly inconsistent. In a 2005 closure study 45% of corks showed gas leakage during pressure testing both from the sides of the cork as well as through the cork body itself.
Since the mid-1990s, a number of wine brands have switched to alternative wine closures such as synthetic plastic stoppers, screw caps, or other closures. In some countries, screw caps are often seen as a cheap alternative destined only for the low grade wines; however, in Australia, for example, the majority of non-sparkling wine production now uses these caps as a cork alternative. These alternatives to real cork have their own properties, some advantageous and others controversial. For example, while screwtops are generally considered to offer a trichloroanisole (TCA) free seal they reduce the oxygen transfer rate to almost zero, which can lead to reductive qualities in the wine. TCA is one of the primary causes of cork taint in wine. However, in recent years major cork producers (Amorim, Álvaro Coelho & Irmãos, Ganau, Cork Supply Group, and Oeneo) have developed methods that remove most TCA from natural wine corks. Natural cork stoppers are important because they allow oxygen to interact with wine for proper aging, and are best suited for bold red wines purchased with the intent to age.
The study "Analysis of the life cycle of Cork, Aluminum and Plastic Wine Closures," commissioned by cork manufacturer Amorim and made public in December 2008, concluded that cork is the most environmentally responsible stopper, in a one-year life cycle analysis comparison with the plastic stoppers and aluminum screw caps.